A Latino Legacy in the Air Force: Hector Santa Anna

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 9/25/2020

To commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, as well as the recent birthday of the United States Air Force (USAF), today we honor the service of one Latino USAF veteran buried at Arlington: Hector Santa Anna, a decorated World War II B-17 bomber pilot, Berlin Airlift pilot and career military leader with a memorable last name. Santa Anna happened to be the great-great nephew of Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who famously led the siege of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution of 1836. But this Santa Anna fought for the United States—beginning in the Army Air Corps during World War II and continuing with the Air Force after its establishment as an independent service branch in 1947.

The son of a miner, Hector Santa Anna was born in the rural town of Miami, Arizona in 1923 and grew up attending public schools that segregated white and Latino students. World War II began in Europe during his senior year in high school; inspired by his football coach’s speech about preparedness, he wanted to join the military after graduation. However, his father believed that at age 17 he was too young, and so Santa Anna moved to California to work as a miner, with the intention of earning money for college. Still, the allure of military service grew stronger after he watched Army Air Corps pilots training at a local base. Santa Anna decided to enlist in the Army, and in July 1943 he completed his flight training at Brooks Army Air Field in San Antonio, Texas—ironically, near where his great-great uncle had laid siege to the Alamo over a century before. Among the 97 cadets in his class, Santa Anna was the only Latino. In a 2003 interview for the University of Texas at Austin’s Voces Oral History Project, he recalled, “It wasn’t easy being the only one. They would always single you out, you know? With a name like Santa Anna, you stood out. Some would accept you and others would not.” 

Following his graduation from flight school, the Army utilized Santa Anna’s bilingualism by assigning him to train Central and South American military pilots at Waco Army Air Field in Texas. He volunteered for combat duty in August 1944, and was sent to Alexandria, Louisiana for B-17 combat crew training. In late October 1944, he arrived in England with the 486th Bomb Group, 3rd Bomb Wing, of the 8th Air Force. Between November 16, 1944 and March 3, 1945, Santa Anna flew 35 combat missions over Western Europe, earning two Distinguished Service Medals, five Air Medals and a Commendation Medal. On one mission, enemy fire ruptured the fuel tanks and destroyed one of the engines of his B-17G. Still, Santa Anna flew the damaged bomber, which had more than 100 holes in its fuselage, until he could safely crash-land it at an Allied airfield in Belgium. According to a fellow crew member, Santa Anna was such a skilled pilot that he “could fly a boxcar.”

After the war, Santa Anna continued his military career in the nascent United States Air Force. During the Berlin Airlift (June 24, 1948-September 30, 1949), he flew 127 missions in support of Allied efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Soviet-blockaded Berlin. His later Air Force career took him to the Pentagon, where he served as special assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. After retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in June 1964, Santa Anna held leadership positions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). During the administration of President Richard Nixon, he served as the Office of Equal Opportunity’s White House representative and a member of the president’s Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People. Throughout his post-USAF years, Santa Anna continued flying, and taught as a flight instructor at a Navy flying club in Annapolis, Maryland. “One of my basic principles in life is to teach,” he said in 2003.

In March 2006, less than a year before he died, the 83-year-old Santa Anna had the honor of seeing himself portrayed in a play, “Voices of Valor,” about Latino service members and their families during World War II. Playwright James Garcia based his play on more than 550 interviews conducted for UT Austin’s Voces Oral History Project. All of the 40 characters were composites, except for Santa Anna. “There was no way I could fictionalize him because he was just too unique,” Garcia told the Los Angeles Times.  

Hector Santa Anna was indeed unique. Yet his story is one among many that illustrate the rich, diverse history of the United States military, which can be glimpsed at Arlington National Cemetery. Santa Anna is buried in Section 54, Grave 571.

Image credits: Voces Oral History Project, University of Texas at Austin (top and middle); Arlington National Cemetery (bottom). 

See also: 

Notable Graves: Hispanic Americans

Notable Graves: United States Air Force